Mechanical issue ends Johnson’s championship hopes


DOVER — There was plenty of irony to all this.

How could Jimmie Johnson get eliminated from the Sprint Cup Chase at Dover International Speedway, of all places?

Johnson had dominated the Monster Mile in recent years.

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson

At the end of the day, it was a simple mechanical issue that forced Johnson into the garage on lap 106 of Sunday’s AAA 400. That led to him finishing just 41st in the race after completing only 364 laps.

That’s how the six-time Cup champion plummeted from fifth in the points standings to 14th by Sunday evening. Only the top 12 drivers advanced in the Chase.

“I’m definitely disappointed,” Johnson said in pit road after the race. “It’s tough having a very inexpensive axle seal be the culprit and take your championship hopes away. It’s racing. I’ve had mechanicals take me out of championships growing up.

“They led to some success for myself. I’m sure they’ve helped with a championship or two. It’s just part of racing. It shows how critical everything is on a race team and how important every component is. You can’t take anything for granted. It’s heartbreaking for sure but there’s not much we can do about it.”

Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer were the other three drivers eliminated from the Chase. McMurray actually tied with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the last spot.

But Junior won on a tiebreaker. His best finish was third in the first three-race Chase segment — which came in Sunday’s race — while McMurray placed fourth in the race.

Earnhardt Jr. admitted that, with about 50 laps remaining, he didn’t think he’d be able to catch McMurray. But after a late caution, Junior got his chance when McMurray tried to squeeze down in front of Matt Kenseth going into Turn 3.

“They really slow rolled that corner for some reason,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I just went to the outside because it was about the only shot I had to pinch Jamie down if I could get to his quarterpanel. That’s how it worked out.”

At one point, Junior was also getting ready to pit because of a loose left rear wheel. But then a caution saved him.

“I was a couple laps from coming in,” said Earnhardt Jr. “It was shaking real bad in the corner, and it started shaking on decel, and I knew it was a matter of time before it was coming off. It wasn’t going to make 50 laps.

“I wasn’t going to bash my head against a concrete wall somewhere for a damned loose wheel.”

Kyle Busch was another driver who was happy to be moving on in the Chase.

He came to Dover on the verge of being eliminated. But he jumped up from 13th to ninth in the points standings after taking second in Sunday’s race.

With qualifying and much of the Sprint Cup practice washed out by rain, Busch admits he was a little nervous going into Sunday’s race. The weather was also colder than it’s been for a while for a race at Dover.

“I just wasn’t as quite as confident in it as I wanted to be,” said Busch. “I never really got a good feel for what I thought I needed to race. But right then and there, for today, the way we ran, I can’t say enough about my team.

“You know, I shouldn’t have been too worried, I guess,” he added. “I should have put my faith in my tea. They prevailed today for me.”

Of course, in the Sprint Cup playoff format, being eliminated from the title race doesn’t mean you stop racing. So whether he’s contender or not, Johnson is just going to go back to work.

“We’ve just got to go on and try to win races and close out the season strong,” said Johnson.

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